The political system of the United States is designed so that during midterm elections — in which the entire House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate, and various governors are re-elected or replaced — the current president loses power, a lot more if it is his second term, as in Barack Obama’s case. It is an extraordinary institutional game of weights and balances, which repeats itself religiously over the years.
Emblematic presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush spent the last two years of their terms without majorities in Congress — a fact which could be a consolation for Obama, whose party, which no longer commands the House of Representatives, also lost control of the Senate last Tuesday. The Republicans were not expected to sweep as they did; however, they obtained important governorships, such as Florida, which inevitably predicts what could happen in the 2016 presidential election.
Everything points to the fact that the United States did not keep Obama’s accomplishments in mind — the low unemployment rate, the reversal of the economic depression, and the launch, although accidental, of health care reform, among other reforms — and decided to punish him, and by extension, his party. They preferred to see the glass half empty, in which Obama’s low approval rate of 40 percent, and his unfulfilled promises — including immigration reform — weighed heavily at the ballot box. The economic progress was inadequate, in their opinion. Without a doubt, the advent and management of the Ebola virus, the Islamic State’s jihadi advances in Iraq, and Putin’s defiant actions in Ukraine which recall the Cold War all contributed to the poor results.
Given this situation, President Obama will have to maneuver a delicate balance in order to achieve key initiatives. If he faced a deadlock while his party held the majority in the Senate, he can expect to find even more hurdles now. Obama could make decisions by presidential decree, thereby approving his projects, but these could then be reversed by the next government, preventing them from ever going down in history; or Obama could resort to the belief that Republicans will assume their role as the governing party, a contradictory vision to the one they demonstrated a year ago, when they paralyzed the federal government during a dispute over the budget.
Within the particularities of the U.S. system, it is also traditional for the president, during his last two years of office, to attempt to shine in foreign policy, in which there are fewer difficulties with the legislative branch, rather than domestic politics. There are still many portfolios to clear out in that respect.
A separate chapter is needed to analyze to what extent Republican rule could affect relations with Colombia, particularly concerning the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Although Bogota has enjoyed bipartisan support, it hopes that Republican reservations about Cuba’s role as the venue and Venezuela’s role as guarantor will not affect the vision regarding the negotiations, nor impact a later role by Washington. Colombian diplomacy will have to be diligent for this not to occur.
A huge challenge or a great opportunity? These are questions that the first black president in the history of the United States has two years to resolve.